It may be the land of Voltaire, Benjamin Constant and Fréderic Bastiat, but it is rare that a liberal today can hope for much from the politics of modern France. In this case, in terms of who I hope to win the French presidential election, the first round tomorrow, I am considering negatives as much as positives. In 2007, I thought Nicolas Sarkozy, who represents Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the largest centre-right party in France, would bring the economic reforms France needed. He delivered on some of this program, such as raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, but he has otherwise been disappointing.
One of the dangers in times of recession is a rise in nativism. This manifests itself in a retreat to the nation at the political level. In economic terms, this is protectionism and a preference for produce of the country. But for any country to be competitive, it must be willing to compete in a global world. If French people are not buying enough French products, it is a signal that they must adjust either their quality or price. Firms seek to grow, and they can only expect foreign markets to be even less forgiving than those of their compatriots. This principle does apply at a European Union level, where President Nicolas Sarkozy wants a “But European Act”, but more so yet at a national level, where he would seek such a measure in lieu of European protectionism.
This was a disappointing election for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. As David Schneider tweeted, “Was the whole LibDem thing something I dreamed in the shower?”. With 63 MPs at the dissolution of the Commons on 6 May, they returned with only 57. These included a few high-profile losses, such as Lembit Öpik in Montgomeryshire, one of the safest seats for Whigs and Liberals since the 17th century, and Dr Evan Harris in Oxford West and Abingdon, who was possibly my favourite MP, a strong voice for a clear scientific understanding of policy, a defender of free speech, and a clear advocate for of gay rights, beaten by Nicola Blackwood, a Tory who apparently has creationist beliefs.
But they also have a great opportunity, as no government can be formed without their support. They have a choice now between supporting a government led by David Cameron, or one led by a probably David Miliband, also supported by the SDLP, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sylvia Hermon. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that as someone who has in political allegiances has gone between the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael that I would favour the former option. I see this as their best chance of affecting change in both policy and in the dynamics of party politics, as long as they ensure a place in cabinet rather than simply supporting the Conservatives in a confidence and supply arrangement.
The Conservatives are reluctant to move much at all on the question of electoral reform. This would be the best reason the Lib Dems would have to collapse negotiations, if they cannot secure a firm commitment on this. However, they should consider two things. The first is that a referendum proposed by a rag-tag slump coalition of Labour, the Lib Dems and a selection of regionalist parties would not be guaranteed to win. The second is that a successful and stable coalition agreement would seriously impair the Tories’ argument against proportional representation, whereas they could point to a Lab/LD/SNP/SDLP/Hermon coalition as exactly the kind of thing that would occur frequently under PR.
The change to the Tories
This leads onto the change they could affect in the party system. As referred to by Declan Harmon, Fianna Fáil eventually abandoned their core principle of opposition to coalitions. In 1989 the Progressive Democrats had had a poor election, falling from 14 to 6 seats. Its members were mostly composed of those who had a deep antipathy to the politics of Charles Haughey, who they were now supporting as Taoiseach. By doing so, they altered the presumptions everyone had about election outcomes and the formation of governments. The Tories know the importance of a stable government as a signal for the markets, and would likely not seek to collapse the arrangement over any frivolous matter. After a year of coalition, they would henceforth slowly begin to think less adamantly in favour of single-party government only.
I was talking to a friend this morning about the coalition who reminded me that they’re Tories, not conservatives. Of course there’s a difference, and there are many issues that I couldn’t trust Tory instincts on, be it Northern Ireland, their approach to families, or their commitment to gay rights (whatever about the optimism of Nick Herbert for his party and his likelihood of being a cabinet minister, there have been too many Lewises, Lardners and Strouds over the course of the election for my liking). But these tendencies would be less of a concern in coalition, and without them, the Tories would be in danger of regressing towards their
In government with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats could ensure that they follow through with their claimed commitments to civil liberties. They could force them to confront more quickly questions like biometric ID cards, the national database, and the level of CCTV coverage in Britain. On immigration, they would propose the amnesty for long-standing residents proposed by the Lib Dems, but neither they pass the stringent caps proposed by the Tories. The Tories would continue for opt-outs on social provisions of the European Union, while not being as obstinate in practice as they might otherwise be. The social conservative wing of the Tories are pushing for a cabinet position for Iain Duncan Smith in return for agreeing to any deal with the Lib Dems. Fine, so long as in the next year or so he is whipped to go through the lobbies voting in favour of some measure on gay rights.
So yes, the Liberal Democrats will suffer some initial drop in support in they enter coalition with the Tories, just as the Green Party did here after 2007, both because of their government partner and the inevitable cuts to government spending. But in the long-term, because of the change they would make to British political culture, both by normalizing c0alition politics and making electoral reform easier to pass, and putting pressure on the civil-liberties-focused wing of the Tories, I think it would be the right thing for them to do.
Over the next few weeks there is no doubt that a few interesting characters are going to pop up and get themslves noticed. Cóir’s “legal expert” Brian Hickey, who received a diploma in legal studies in July 2009, raised some eyebrows when he appeared on Newstalk’s The Wide Angle on Sunday.
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When Mr. Hickey was asked: “Do you think we should be members of the European Union?” The response was,
“Cóir would not have a specific position on that. Different Cóir members would have different views on that matter. My personal view and I would stress that it is a personal view is that we should not be members.“
This is a worrying trend that demonstrates the lack of coherence and foresight by those espousing a NO vote. Whatever misunderstandings people may have about the Lisbon Treaty, it is a minority faction of society that would wish Ireland to exit the EU. Even more worrying is that Cóir as an organisation has not agreed whether Ireland should remain in the EU.
Why after all that this country has benefitted from the EU would we listen to the views of an organization that want us out the Union?
The EU is committed to consumer protection and price stability and has also worked hard to keep prices low and work for a fair market in many areas.
A good example of the practical effect of this in recent years, has been the regulations surrounding mobile phone roaming prices. The EU has introduced new maximum fees for and for receiving calls calling between countries. As of 1 July, the following regulations came into effect:
- Limits the price for sending a text message while abroad at €0.11. Receiving an SMS in another EU country will remain free of charge.
- Reduces the cost of surfing the web and downloading movies or video programs with a mobile phone while abroad by introducing a maximum wholesale cap of €1 per megabyte downloaded. This limit will be decreased each
- The new rules will also protect consumers from “bill shocks” by introducing a cut-off mechanism once the bill reaches €50, unless they choose another cut-off limit (recently, a German downloading a TV programme while roaming in France faced a bill of €46,000). Operators have until March 2010 to put this cut-off limit in place.
- Further reduces prices for mobile roaming calls with a maximum tariff of €0.43 for making a call and €0.19 for receiving one.
- These prices are to be further reduced to €0.35 and €0.11 respectively by summer 2011.
- Introduce per second billing after the first 30 seconds for calls made and immediately for calls received.
- Ensure that citizens are kept adequately informed of the charges that apply for data roaming services.
The European Commission also provides easy-to-use information on its web site detailing phone rates between countries.